I have a daughter. Some of you know this. She is many things – a logistics engineer, a mother, a wife, an activist for women in the logistics field, and a graduate student.
A quilter, she is not.
She loves the quilts I make, and she has a healthy appreciation and respect for the art. I think, possibly, in the future, when her life slows down a tad, she may pick up a rotary cutter and some fabric and slice and dice her way into our world. She also reads my blogs.
After reading the one on Anita Smith, she sent me this text: I think you need to do a series on why quilting is so important for younger generations.
If you’ve read some of my past blogs, you know this is a twist on a topic I’ve hit on once or twice, but those had more to do with quilt guilds and quilt groups attracting younger quilters. However, this is different. She wants to know why quilting is important for younger generations.
At this point I could go into all the ways quilting is a creative force. It allows hopes, dreams, and visions to spill out onto fabric and batting. It stitches down ideas and revelations for the world to see. I could wax eloquent on the way it works both sides of the brain and helps prevent nasty things like Alzheimer’s and dementia. But in so many ways, it would be wrong. Not that quilting doesn’t do all of that, but so do other forms of fiber arts like knitting and crocheting.
And so does dance, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture. Quilting doesn’t have the market cornered on good mental health.
I think, if I had a group of Millennials (and younger) crowded into my quilt studio right now, wanting to learn to quilt, I’d tell them this:
It’s not all about the quilts. It’s about the quilters – the fellowship. It’s about sharing the good times and the bad. It’s about multiplying the joys and halving the sorrows. It’s about taking the scraps life hands you and sticking your finger in fate’s eye when you make something beautiful out of it. That’s what quilting is all about.
Yes, I would emphasize quilting is important. It is the legacy birthright handed down from our foremothers. Quilts were made to keep us warm, but any women’s studies professor will tell you in order to understand women, what they did, what they held as sacred and important is found in their quilts until about 1920. We poured our political beliefs, our sacred trusts, our love for family and friends into those textiles. Most of those were shown in highly symbolic quilt blocks or applique, but the voices of those thoughts and feelings are there. Once women got the right to vote in 1920, our voices, for the most part, went from silent thread and fabric to vocally proclaiming our rights and beliefs. At that point the patriarchy began a slow death spiral as we found our footing in “man’s” society. Quilts weren’t necessarily created by quiet, meek women. If you listen closely to the quilts, you’ll find they scream these women’s thoughts.
And if you look closely at today’s art quilts and quilts created out of tragedies such as COVID, 9/11, the AIDS Crisis, the Challenger Explosion, and every war we’ve ever fought, the quilts are still quite vocal. Despite the fact we can protest, proclaim, march, hold rallies and news conferences, many quilters find their quilts leave lasting statements long remembered after some grandiose speech is long forgotten. The act of quilting allows us to pray, rant, and grieve…and then put some kind of order to these feelings. Stitching allows us an outlet – often solitary, often only between us and God – to regain a sense of peace and control, even when everything outside our front door has been wrenched out of our control.
So, yes, the quilts are important.
I could give an object lesson to the younger folks in my quilt room. I could hold up various tools such as a seam ripper and needles and thread. I would ask how many of them knew how to use them. I’d inquire how many had ever used a sewing machine. And then I would tell them quilting could effectively teach them how to use each and every one of them. I’d explain the skills learned in quilting can carry over into everyday life. That needle and thread you may use to hand stitch can easily be employed to tack a sagging hem. The busted seam on your favorite shorts can be sewn back together on a basic sewing machine. No going to an alterations shop. No forking out $10 to fix a loose hem or a gaping seam. Quilting can teach you mad skills which can save you major cash.
So, yes, quilting can teach you lifelong abilities guaranteed to save you money and make your friends look at you in awe.
But quilting is even more than that. Allow me to insert my personal quilt journey. Around 15…maybe even 20 years ago, my mother handed me a quilt. This quilt:
It’s a utility quilt, made from dress making scraps and bits of leftover feedsacks. It’s quilted with white, cotton thread. It was made by my great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Wolfe Perry. The quilt sat, neatly folded, on a bench at the foot of my bed for years. I would look at it every day. And nearly every day I would think about how I would like to learn to make the quilt. But between babies and school and work and a husband who worked out of town more than in, I didn’t have time.
Then one day my mother was over and asked to see the quilt. I unfolded it and spread it out on her lap. She began to point to different blocks. “That was a piece of my grandaddy’s shirt.”
“This was a piece of my momma’s dress.”
“Here’s a piece of material from my school dress.”
The quilt became more than a quilt. It was a textile repository of family stories and the lives of a hardworking textile family scraping out a living in Spray, North Carolina. And a flip switched in me. I no longer wanted to learn to quilt, I wanted to learn about this quilt. A few phone calls to the local history museum landed me an appointment with its textile specialist. She was able to give me a brief rundown of the fabrics, where they came from, and why a wool blanket was used for batting and backing, but as for the quilting? Really not her area of expertise. However, she did send me on my way with a list of local quilters and their phone numbers who could answer my questions “far better than me.”
More phone calls. More appointments. Meetings with women who knew their art intimately. They listened to my story and looked at my quilt with rapt attention. They ran their hands and fingers over the top with sheer reverence. Stories and wisdom spilled out over cups of coffee and glasses of sweet tea. As I pieced together the history of this type of quilt, and began to close this chapter of my life, I remember I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to continue hanging out with those women. I wanted to listen to them talk. Learn their stories. Absorb their wisdom.
And here’s where the secret lies in my quilting journey: I didn’t learn to quilt because of the quilts. I wanted to quilt because of the quilters.
I hungered for that sense of community.
If I had to tell this group of imaginary Millennials gathered in my quilt room only one reason they needed to learn to quilt, it would be for the community quilting provides.
My first quilt required several trips to the fabric store – Hancock Fabrics. It was from this
ugly humble first quilt, I began to meet quilters. The salesperson who initially helped me didn’t know batting from backing, but pointed me in the direction of someone who did. My first quilting friend was made. Over the next few years, through workshops and trips to different quilt shops and sit and sews, I found my group of quilters. We’ve quilted together through highs and lows, Covid, deaths of parents and spouses, and everything in between. Prayer requests, wishes, dreams, rants, and regrets are shared as stitches are stitched. There’s true support there, but we also hold each other accountable. No one puts up with my “stuff” and will generally call me out on it.
These are the women who brought my daughter meals when she was recovering from her cancer surgery. These are the people who prayed for my brother when he was undergoing treatments for Multiple Myeloma. They regularly ask about my 83-year-old momma. These are the folks I’ve cried with and laughed so hard with I had to go change my pants. They are what I call my “Sunday Friends” – the ones I could call on a Sunday afternoon with an emergency and they’d show up with whatever I needed.
Not just anyone will do that.
If I had to give any Millennial a reason to quilt, it would be this – the wonderful opportunity to belong to a tight knit community who would love you, support you, and likewise call you out if you’re wrong about something. A community of different races and ages and sexes, but all strung together by needles, thread, a love of quilts and quilters. A gift so wonderful but yet as timeless as quilting itself. Women’s history tells us quilters have gotten together in groups for hundreds of years. Our generation is no different, and the next group of us won’t be either.
So why is quilting so important to the next generation? It’s honestly not the quilts, as important and beautiful as they are. It’s not the construction skills learned. It’s the folks you meet along your quilting journey who become closer than some family and will love you no matter what.
In the words of the great poet, Maya Angelou: “Let me remind all women that we live longer and better lives when we have sisters we love, not necessarily born in our bloodline or of our race. Sisters.”
Until Next Week,
Love and Stitches,
PS I would be remiss if I did not recognize there are male quilters out there, too. I’m sure they also enjoy the sense of community quilting brings. However, I’m writing from a historical perspective and while men have always been a part of our quilting fabric, the field has been predominantly female for hundreds of years.